Brutally honest answers to Space FAQs

Introduction

Every week I answer diverse questions around space from how to become an astronaut to making a career in the space industry, and so on. So here is a much-needed FAQ section. The answers are based on my personal experiences and from observing the career trajectories of my fellow space enthusiasts along my journey.

This post will be discouraging several times, but I just want to paint a very realistic picture. There are too many starry eyed young aspirants who get caught in the glitter of the space sector and end up disillusioned with enormous financial burdens and fancy but practically useless space degrees and dejectedly settling down with a job in a non-space industry.

On the bright side, there are ways to smartly maneuver this space. Of course it greatly depends on personal strengths, previous experience, risk tolerance among other factors. But anybody who enters this enticing field, should be aware of the risks and be prepared for the worst. This article attempts to give an overview of the risks and their mitigation methods. I hope this article can help you in accurately gauging the space scene and finding your niche. Ad Astra!

FAQs and Answers

FAQ #1 I want to become an astronaut. What should I do?

If you are a national (or some cases permanent resident) of the USA, Japan, Russia, EU, China then please check the websites of the respective space agencies. Also, consider yourself lucky! 🙂

If you are an Indian national (mostly Indians ask me this question), then it depends on what exactly you mean by ‘becoming an astronaut’.

If you just want to experience microgravity, then buy a ticket on-board the Virgin galactic. If you want a more thrilling experience, just buy a ticket from SpaceX like the Japanese billionaire and loop the dark side of the moon. If you can afford these, then you can also afford a shrewd and very much required legal team to help you navigate the regulatory and insurance aspects.

If you wish to be a part of a space mission or the International Space Station crew then there isn’t much hope since India is not a member of the ISS consortium.

ISRO has announced a human space flight program Gaganyaan and the first batch of ‘Vyomonuats’ will most likely be selected from the Indian Air Force. Remember Rakesh Sharma and Ravish Malhotra, they were both Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots.

Of course, you can also join the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) or a science research group in the country (TIFRIIAIUCAA, IISER) and hope for the day when Indian scientists will get to be part of human space flight missions. 🙂

FAQ #2 I completed my bachelor(/master) of engineering(/science) degree and want to work in the space sector in India

You have several options

  1. Government
    • ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) is the most popular government organization doing space activities in the country. Apply through the ICRB (ISRO central recruitment board) or check the careers page of individual ISRO centers regularly.
    • TIFR (TATA Institute of Fundamental Research) has a department of Astronomy and Astrophysics which worked alongside ISRO on the Astrosat mission – India’s own space observatory
    • IIA (Indian Institute of Astrophysics)
    • IUCAA (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics)
    • IISER (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) have campuses across India
  2. Private
    • Big corporations like SES, Airbus have little presence in India since ISRO builds its own satellites
    • L&T, TATA, Godrej have no real products but act as vendors to ISRO
  3. SMEs – Don’t expect IT sector like pay since they all fight for the same limited pie. An engineer’s salary can be as little as Rs 25,000-30,000 per month
  4. Startups
    • Bellatrix Aerospace develops thrusters and rocket engines
    • SatSure is a satellite data analytics company
    • Skyroot Aerospace develops small launchers
    • Exseed Space will soon be launching a cubesat onboard SpaceX’s Falcon-9 which would be India’s first industry built satellite
    • Agnikul also developing launch vehicles

Word of caution Startups can be highly volatile. For instance, Team Indus had made a lot of news internationally but didn’t make the launch and its current status is unknown

FAQ #3 I am a middle/high school student and wish to pursue a career in space in India

In addition to the routes mentioned in the previous section, you can also apply to get into IIST (Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology) after which, depending upon the vacancies and your academic performance, you will be offered a position in ISRO.

FAQ #4 I completed my bachelor degree in an Engineering/Science stream. Which aerospace master course should I choose?

The answer to this question obviously depends to a great extent on the person’s background, interests and capabilities. I tried coming up with a flowchart but it just doesn’t do justice since the thought process is highly personal. So I’ll list down a few general pointers that apply to most people and scenarios.

Golden Rule

Contrary to public opinion and space being the latest buzzword, the space sector doesn’t have as many vast numbers of well-paying jobs that we think it does. The pay often is mostly around average and do keep in mind that you’d be competing with graduates with generic master degrees in electrical, computer, mechanical engineering areas. Therefore, never pursue a master course with a hefty tuition fee that would result in a financial burden which would in turn force you into desperation to take up any job after graduation. Check out these master courses that have low/zero tuition fees.

If you cannot find a suitable low financial burden master, then consider doing a master in generic engineering or science streams. Very often, space companies are looking for employees with pure STEM expertise. For instance, a company making satellites requires a lot of software engineers to code their onboard computers, their ground processing chains, the tracking algorithms, etc. In this case, an embedded systems graduate whose had been coding for say 3 years would obviously be more valuable than a graduate with a space degree who knows a lot about spacecraft orbit dynamics and other fancy space stuff but hadn’t really coded much. Similarly, they often look for analog/digital electronics experts, communication engineers, optical systems experts, etc.

Moreover, with a generic STEM degree, if you cannot find a job in the space sector right after graduation, you can always work in your STEM field and build expertise while waiting for the right opportunity in the space sector.

Of course, if you have access to deep pockets but still want to continue in the space sector after graduation, then this golden rule will not apply to you. But other aspects addressed below might help in choosing a master program.

Some common sense

I’m assuming that you want to pursue a master course in a country which already has a thriving space program or a reasonable amount of space activity. There is no point going to say Eritrea to study space science and technology.

Of course, there are several emerging space actors such as South Africa, Nigeria, Brazil which already have a space agency and government funding for space activities. But unless your life depends on it, I would recommend going to established space ecosystems such as

  • USA
    ITAR regulations prohibit 90% of the aerospace jobs to be given to only US nationals. Only limited science research positions mostly in universities, NASA, other institutions are available to non-citizens.
  • Western Europe
    Ample research and job opportunities with companies such as Airbus, OHB, SES, Thales Alenia, etc and many SMEs
  • Scandinavia
    Limited opportunities in industry but more opportunities in space science research
  • UK
    Visa regulations to Indian students make it harder for Indian students to immediately find jobs
  • Japan
    JAXA’s research labs and upcoming startups like iSpace, Axelspace
  • China
    Couldn’t find much information, but there is definitely the language barrier
  • Australia
    Most recently got their space agency but has a good local ecosystem of space companies
  • Canada
    Lucrative PR entry and a few space companies. Not sure how sustainable though
  • Luxembourg
    Lots of cash being thrown at newspace companies but I would be cautious
  • Austria, Netherlands, Switzerland
    Have only a few but excellent space companies such as Ruag Space. Also, most beautiful countries to live in! 🙂
  • Russia
    The first space giant, but sadly there are not enough space jobs for foreigners. But do consider the excellent Skoltech master with its full scholarship and tie-up with MIT

Plans after the master

If this master course is just a stepping stone to an eventual PhD, then you should consider the following aspects

  • The global reputation of University/Department
    Unlike in India, entry into PhD programs worldwide depends entirely on the professor-in-charge. Studying at a reputed University/department (do note that sometimes the department’s reputation is entirely independent of the university’s ranking) would increase your chances of landing your dream PhD position. Most importantly, figure out ways to secure funding since getting accepted to a PhD position doesn’t guarantee funding in many countries
  • Quality of research in University
    Obviously. This just needs a bit of internet search – look up their past and current projects, peer-reviewed publications, participation in any reputed competitions. You’ll also get to know the latest happenings during this.

If you wish to start working in the space industry right after graduation, then prioritize these

  • Country and its regulations for foreigners
    In the space industry, a master degree makes the most sense when augmented with internships and work experience. Somehow, most Indians only realize after beginning their studies in the US that the ITAR regulations don’t allow them to work in the local space industry, neither for internships nor employment. On contrary Germany doesn’t have such limiting regulations for foreigners and all foreign students after graduation can stay in the country for 18 months to find a job. Also, securing a work-permit is also quite easy and straightforward in Germany given its STEM work-force crunch, unlike the H1B hassle in the US.
  • Presence of a local space ecosystem
    It’s almost common knowledge that grades aren’t the biggest indicators of a person’s employability. The space industry needs good team players with decent work ethics. What better way to demonstrate this to your potential employer than to have worked with the local space industry or space agency? To land this internship or part-time position in the first place, it makes sense to choose a university which has a local space ecosystem in the form of SMEs, space companies, or a space agency.

Will keep adding more answers.

Meanwhile, feel free to reach out on me@rachana.space or through any of the channels below to address any further questions. But do go through this check-list before sending a message or email.

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